Kanshi Ram: The Bahujan Nayak of India’s Dalit Movement
(This story is being reposted from The Quint's archives on the occasion of Kanshi Ram’s death anniversary.)
Kanshi Ram is considered the second biggest name of the Dalit movement in India’s political landscape, after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. Fondly known as Bahujan Nayak or Saheb, Kanshi Ram launched the Bahujan Samaj Party in 1984, which went on to form the government in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh on four occasions.
Born on 15 March 1934, Kanshi Ram was a Dalit from the Chamar Ramdasia community of Khawaspur village in Ropar district (now Rupnagar), Punjab. He completed his BSc and joined as an assistant Scientist in DRDO in Kirki Pune Maharashtra in 1957.
First Steps Towards Dalit Activism
Although his village was free of the stigma of untouchability, Kanshi Ram came face-to-face with caste discrimination while working at the Explosive Research and Development Laboratory (ERDL) in Pune, where the management cancelled Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Jayanti and Buddha Jayanti holidays. It was the struggle to reinstate these two holidays that inspired Kanshi Ram to fight for Dalits.
A subsequent reading of Ambedkar’s writings, particularly ‘The Annihilation of Caste’, instilled pride in his identity and a desire to mobilise Dalits. At first, he worked for the Republican Party of India for eight years, till he became disillusioned by the party’s functioning.
Formation of BAMCEF, DS4 and BSP
After travelling the length and breadth of the country on cycles to understand Dalits’ plight, Kanshi Ram formed the All India SC, ST, OBC and Minority Employees Association (BAMCEF) in 1978 – a non-political, non-religious and non-agitational organisation. Later in 1981, he formed the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4).
In 1982 he wrote his book ‘The Chamcha Age (an Era of the Stooges)’ where he lampooned Dalit leaders who, for their own selfish motives, worked for parties like the Congress. On realising the Dalit movement cannot gain momentum without a political base, Kanshi Ram launched the Bahujan Samaj Party in on 14 April 1984, 28 years after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s death. He used the Pali word ‘Bahujan’ to assimilate all minorities under one banner.
Political Ups and Downs
In the 1988 Allahabad LS bypolls, Kanshi Ram contested against future Prime Minister VP Singh and lost by 70,000 votes. His bad run continued as he contested from East Delhi (Lok Sabha constituency) in 1989 and came fourth.
Fortunes turned when Kanshi Ram finally won the Etawah LS Constituency in 1991; he later won the Hoshiarpur LS Constituency in Punjab in 1996. In 1993, Kanshi Ram joined forces with the Samajwadi Party to form the government in UP.
At the onset of the 90s, Kanshi Ram had aggressively campaigned against the Manuwadis and upper castes. But soon he realised the importance of all castes and garnered support from Brahmins, Banias and even the Muslims, thereby effectively wiping out the Congress vote bank in the 90s.
In 1995, Mayawati, Kanshi Ram’s protege, become the youngest CM of UP and the first Dalit CM in India.
According to Mayawati’s biographer, when Kanshi Ram visited Mayawati’s family in 1977 he told her, "I can make you such a big leader one day that not one, but a whole row of IAS officers will line up for your orders." The BSP went on to form governments in UP in 1997, 2002 and later a fourth term in 2007 with absolute majority.
Death Before Conversion to Buddhism
Kanshi Ram was a diabetic and was plagued by health problems. He suffered a heart attack in 1994, an arterial clot in his brain in 1995, and a stroke in 2003. After the stroke, he was virtually bed-ridden till his death.
In 2002, Ram had announced his intention to convert to Buddhism on 14 October 2006, the 50th anniversary of Ambedkar's conversion; however, he died just a few days short, on 9 October 2006, of a severe heart attack.
His funeral rites were performed as per Buddhist tradition with Mayawati lighting the pyre, and his ashes were placed in an urn and kept at Prerna Sthal in Noida UP.